Governor, Republican legislators find broad support at Chugiak town halls

Thursday, March 5, 2020 - 07:18
  • Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy talks to a constituent following a town hall meeting at the Steve Primis Auditorium at Chugiak High School on Monday, March 2, 2020 in Chugiak, Alaska. (Matt Tunseth / ADN)
  • People listen to Gov. Mike Dunleavy speak during a town hall meeting at the Steve Primis Auditorium at Chugiak High School on Monday, March 2, 2020 in Chugiak, Alaska. (Matt Tunseth / ADN)
  • People listen to legislators during a legislative town hall meeting at Chugiak High on Feb. 29, 2020. (Matt Tunseth / Chugiak-Eagle River Star)
  • Dr. Anne Zink, Chief Medical Officer for the State of Alaska, speaks to people during a legislative town hall meeting at Chugiak High School on Saturday, Feb. 29, 2020. (Matt Tunseth / ADN)
  • Sen. Lora Reinbold is flanked by Rep. Cathy Tilton, left, Rep. Kelly Merrick, third from left, and Sen. Shelley Hughes, right, during a legislative town hall meeting on Feb. 29, 2020 at Chugiak High. (Matt Tunseth / Chugiak-Eagle River Star)
  • People listen to legslators during a town hall meeting on Feb. 29, 2020 at Chugiak High. (Matt Tunseth / Chugiak-Eagle River Star)

Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s first “Conversations With Alaskans” town hall meeting Monday drew nearly 200 generally supportive constituents to the Chugiak High School auditorium.

Most in attendance shared the opinions that Dunleavy should hold the line on state spending, ensure the government pays a “full” Permanent Fund dividend, and continue working to restrict abortion and protect gun rights.

The meeting came as Dunleavy faces a recall attempt by opponents who argue he is incompetent and unfit for office. But if folks in the auditorium thought the first-term governor was incompetent, they weren’t saying so.

“If there’s a petition out there for a counter-recall, I’d like to sign it,” said David Vesper, who told Dunleavy he was there to urge the governor to support a father’s rights bill and to oppose a bill that would make it easier to remove guns from those accused of domestic violence.

Others spoke up about a range of topics, but most echoed themes Dunleavy campaigned on.

“A full PFD is what we want and all the back payments paid in full,” said Dave Maxwell, who drove from Palmer for the event, the first of what Dunleavy has promised will be a series of meetings around the state.

Maxwell urged the governor to cut the state’s budget rather than imposing new taxes or tapping the fund.

“You could cut it by one-third and most wouldn’t even notice,” he said.

Wasilla’s Aaron Huhta said he thinks the state’s easiest path to prosperity is through cuts to regulations on small-business owners.

“How about getting out of the way of business?” Huhta said.

Lots of talk

The event was one of two town hall meetings held in Chugiak in three days. On Saturday, Sen. Lora Reinbold, Sen. Shelley Hughes, Rep. Kelly Merrick, Rep. Cathy Tilton and Rep. Sharon Jackson hosted a community meeting attended by more than 50 people at the Chugiak High cafeteria.

Reinbold told the crowd the legislators (Jackson participated via phone and video while visiting her sick mother) called the meeting to hear suggestions from constituents about what to do about pressing issues facing the state.

“We are here to listen to you,” Reinbold told the crowd.

Each legislator gave brief update on what’s happening in Juneau, where the House and Senate are currently working through the budget process. Reinbold also invited three guest speakers: Dr. Anne Zink, chief medical officer for the State of Alaska, who gave a brief update on the novel coronavirus; Jim Amundson, the DOT’s Central Region Highway Design Chief, who gave an update on the status of the Glenn Highway construction this summer; and Dr. Tom Roth, the Anchorage School District’s chief operating officer, who told the crowd the district is continuously monitoring the coronavirus situation (on Tuesday, the district cancelled all out-of-state travel for the rest of the school year).

Most of those who spoke said they supported the legislators, with several expressing frustration at the Legislature’s binding caucus rules and others telling the five legislators they arppreciate their anti-abortion stances and their support of paying full PFD’s.

Looking for suggestions

Dunleavy’s stated purpose for holding his town halls is to get suggestions from Alaskans on closing the state’s fiscal gap. A pair of meetings scheduled earlier this month in Wrangell and Petersburg were canceled due to weather.

Peter Roberts told Dunleavy he thinks revenue could be gained by changing the state’s laws on charitable gaming so that gambling revenues are recouped by the state and municipalities rather than nonprofits.

“Instead of gaming regulators, operators and nonprofits deciding on how to spend this money, shouldn’t we the people and our elected officials decide?” asked Roberts, who said local municipalities only received 5.6% of the $35.2 million in net proceeds (after payment of prizes and expenses) generated by the estimated $376 million spent on gambling in Alaska in 2018.

One Dunleavy opponent who spoke up was Derek Reed, an Anchorage teacher who before the meeting helped gather signatures for the Recall Dunleavy effort. Reed told the governor he doesn’t support any budget that cuts funding for education in Alaska.

“We need education reform and it starts with teacher staffing,” said Reed.

Jonathon Hazelton also grabbed one of the two microphones circulating in the audience to criticize the governor’s lack of vision, saying a proposal to give out vouchers to purchase state land in lieu of Permanent Fund dividends doesn’t go far enough to raise new revenues.

“Where are the creative solutions?” Hazelton asked.

Dunleavy disagreed with Hazelton’s assertion, saying there are no options he hasn’t considered.

“We’re looking at everything.”

Recall backers undeterred

A handful of people gathered outside the auditorium before the meeting to try and gather signatures for the recall. While Reed said he believes having a dialogue is important, Dunleavy needs to go because the governor hasn’t listened to regular Alaskans.

“Many people tried to work with the governor, there was an outcry of public opinion, there was an outcry from all sides of the spectrum and all of Alaskans and yet he still said no, he still went to closed-door meetings,” Reed said. “The constitution allows for something like this as a means when someone breaks the law, when someone violates the constitution in many ways as well, which is part of our grounds for recall.”

Eagle River’s Debbie Corral also gathered recall signatures Monday. She said she thinks Dunleavy got elected by promising a Permanent Fund dividend he couldn’t deliver.

“He’s playing politics and trying to buy voters by giving them these huge dividends that should be used to provide services for our state,” said Corral, who gathered signatures alongside fellow Eagle River residents Donna Steinfort and Bev Lewanski.

Steinfort said that although she’s against the governor, she and her fellow recall supporters have no ill will toward his supporters.

“Everyone has the right to their own opinion,” she said.

Positive outcome

After the meeting, Dunleavy said he was happy with the outcome and support he received. He said his office also plans to look at surveys it circulated at the meeting that ask for suggestions.

“We’re looking for as much feedback as we can from Alaskans because it’s going to be Alaskans we make the decisions for and the solutions for,” he said.

Dunleavy has yet to announce future meetings but said more dates and locations will be coming soon. As for what he took away from the event, he said he was encouraged by people’s willingness to speak out.

“We have a very diverse state. We have folks that have different views on how to solve the issues,” he said. “But we’re going to have to come together, we’re going to have to make some decisions and hopefully we make those decisions on behalf of the majority of Alaskans and that the decisions we make all Alaskans will benefit from — that’s the best we can do.”

After the meeting, Dunleavy supporter Loy Thurman said he believes the governor is under attack from those who want to use the Permanent Fund dividend to fund social programs that aren’t needed.

“They’re stealing our PFD to spend on government programs so they can buy elections,” said Thurman, who attended the meeting in a bright red “Make America Great Again” hat in support of President Donald Trump.

Both Dunleavy and Trump won the Chugiak-Eagle River and Mat-Su areas north of Anchorage by wide margins, and Thurman said he believes the recall effort is similar to Trump’s impeachment in that those who disagree with the results of an election now want to see it reversed.

“He’s in the same situation Trump’s in.”

Two people who were able to come to a consensus after the meeting were Eagle River’s David Vesper and Donna Steinfort. Though they consider themselves ideologically opposite, the two neighbors — one a recall supporter, one a Dunleavy backer — stood chatting amiably in the aisles of the auditorium as the crowd filtered out. Both agreed they hold no ill will toward each other despite their political differences.

“We can agree to disagree amiably,” Steinfort said.

Vesper concurred.

“The great thing is we’re having a civil conversation.”

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story misspelled Steinfort’s last name. It also misstated the amount of money Roberts said goes from charitable gaming to local municipalities and incorrectly attributed Corral’s quote to Lewanski.

Email Star editor Matt Tunseth at [email protected] or call 257-4274.

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